Friday, 28 October 2011

Apps and the Single Author

One of the great attractions of writing is that anyone can do it. The only barrier to entry is access to a word processor and an email account - a barrier low enough to encourage penniless students and struggling single parents alike (hello, J.K. Rowling). Another great thing is that you can do a lot of the work on your own. In fact, electronic publishing means that you could go all the way from initial concept to finished e-book without involving a single other person (though I wouldn't recommend it).

But now something even newer has appeared on the writing scene - the app. Depending on who you believe, they are either the saviour of storytelling or a frivolous annoyance; as usual, I suspect the answer is somewhere between the two extremes. Someone who tends to the former view is author and agent Xavier Waterkeyn, who wrote an impassioned article for FutureBook last week, about his plans for an app project he is representing called The Chimera Vector. Xavier is not a man troubled by small ideas, and it's clear that the project is as ambitious as they come – the future of storytelling, no less. But once the brainstorming phase was over, the team's plans for a multi-layered socially-integrated transmedia experience hit a significant problem. Cost.
The problem with apps is they are expensive to make. Unless you're hiring an independent app developer, your app could cost anywhere from $20,000 to over $100,000, with an average of $60,000. Apps - like books themselves - rarely even get as far as breaking even.

We realized early on that we couldn't afford to fund this project ourselves. What started as a $20,000 basic app idea soon evolved into a $93,000 app idea that would redefine storytelling, but only if we have the funds to make it.
Wait a minute there. 93,000 dollars? I know that the business model for author-led fiction isn't great. I know that I will probably never recoup enough money to cover the eight years (and counting) that I have put into my craft. But as I've worked full-time throughout that period, the real cost to me can be counted in stuff like SCBWI membership fees, notepads and Bic biros. Probably a few hundred pounds. But if I had been trying to develop an app? Well, I couldn't have afforded even the entry-level $20,000, and I suspect I'm not the only one.

The problem with apps is that they require a team. Developers, graphic designers, scriptwriters, testers, project managers etc. One person in front of a keyboard is going to have a tough time competing with the high production values of mainstream apps, and I'm sure this “Hollywoodisation" of the market can only get worse. Compare that to the experience of writing a conventional book, where I can open up MS Word right now and write a paragraph better than anything Dan Brown has ever produced. Of course, I can't command his marketing and production budget, but I can dream...

By coincidence, I've just started reading How I Escaped My Certain Fate - The Life and Deaths of a Stand-Up Comedian by Stewart Lee. It's a fascinating and very funny deconstruction of the art of comedy, as ambitious a project as anything in the iTunes App Store. Lee has the completely opposite view to Xavier Waterkeyn – he believes that a single person on stage with a microphone has the best chance of reinventing the medium. After the high profile but financially unrewarding Jerry Springer – The Opera, Lee decided to focus on smaller gigs with smaller audiences, reasoning that a loyal fanbase would be much more likely to support him long term. This has given him the freedom to build an act around picking comedy apart, to be a niche artiste rather than trying to appeal to the mass market.

I occasionally harbour grandiose ideas to reinvent the nature of storytelling, although I have to remind myself that the story has been around for a while and is doing quite fine on its own, thankyouverymuch. Nevertheless, it does seem to me that someone with very little to lose financially is more likely to take the risks that will result in Narrative 2.0. Xavier Waterkeyn is nothing if not an idealist, and doesn't really seem to grasp that people who invest money generally want to see a return on that. His pitch seems to be based more on goodwill than actual economics:
We'll be honest with you. [The Chimera Vector] probably won't make a profit.
Well, that's convinced me! The cheque for a hundred grand is in the post.


Friday, 21 October 2011

Ghostwriting the Dead

You might want to stand back - I feel a rant coming on. It's all been prompted by my discovery this week that P.D. James has written a historical crime novel. How interesting, I thought, until I saw that it was a crime novel set in the world of Pride and Prejudice. The next thing I knew, I was slapping my forehead and grumbling about the lack of vision by some of our most accomplished novelists. Fan fiction used to be something you wrote as your very first book, not your 22nd. And more than that, there seems to be a veritable trend of franchise-mining going on this Christmas - Anthony Horowitz has written a Sherlock Holmes novel and Frank Cottrell Boyce has penned a sequel to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Perhaps James, now 91, has earned the chance to take a fictional retirement in the worlds that inspired her. But it saddens me that market-leading authors - who could have any book published - have resorted to stepping into the shoes of their dead forebears. I mean, I love Eoin Colfer to bits, but did the world really need another instalment of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy? The series had gone stale while Douglas Adams was still alive and writing them.

That said, I'm not attacking the quality of these books. Indeed I enjoy the Young Bond series by Charlie Higson and it seems as though Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again is a better book than Ian Fleming's original. Writers are often the most voracious of readers, so it's no surprise that they welcome the chance to take on these well-loved characters. But I wonder if they wouldn't mind awfully writing these books and then putting them straight in a drawer. It's not like most of them need the money.

Sometimes, these sequels are written with the best of intentions. Geraldine McCaughrean's Peter Pan in Scarlet was produced to raise extra funds for Great Ormond Street Hospital, one year before the character went out of copyright. But most of these officially sanctioned works are simply feathering the nest of an already very rich author's estate, or the corporations that spring up to manage them. How much, I wonder, has Thomas the Tank Engine earned since the Rev. W. Awdry's death, compared with the amount he saw in his lifetime? I do hope that Terry Pratchett has the legal wherewithal to stop someone producing more Discworld novels after the sad day that he loses the ability to do so.

I'm not criticising the literary metafiction of Jasper Fforde, nor genre mash-ups like Kim Newman's Anno Dracula or Alan Moore's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Hell, even Pride and Prejudice and Zombies gets my cautious approval as an experiment in form, conducted by a then unknown author with something to prove. But the mega famous writers of officially sanctioned fan fiction are stifling originality for the rest of us. Every time they succeed with one of these books, the market gets a little more conservative. Please, let the dead lie silent and show us something new.


Friday, 14 October 2011

Fellow Travellers

Next Monday, the 2012 Undiscovered Voices longlist will be published. For some the waiting will be over, for others another month and a half of nail biting will ensue as they wait to see if they’ve made the shortlist. For those of us who made the anthology in 2010, a chapter of our lives will quietly come to a close.

Would I offer any advice to the next batch of winners? Not really. I think you need to make your own mistakes and your own discoveries, free from any of my expectations. One thing I hope you’ll discover is a fantastic bunch of fellow travellers. No, not the Communist Party, but the other 2012 winners. Like me, you may hardly know any of them to start with, but if you’re lucky you’ll make some really good friends. Heaven knows, I’ve leaned pretty heavily on the 2010 group at times, and this week has been no exception. They’ve always been there for me: supportive, perceptive and honest (the way good friends should be) but never boastful or hurtful. I’m very lucky to have lots of writing friends, but there’s nothing like having a whole group of trusted opinions right there at your fingertips.

I talked last week about the SCBWI Scene, and the Undiscovered Voices 2010ers are like a scene within a scene, the kind of gang I always dreamed of joining as a kid, but was never brave enough to try. We were thrown together for the first time at the anthology launch party, and had about as much time to bond as a group of Christians about to be thrown to the lions! Yet, that shared struggle has pulled us through, despite our very different career trajectories.

Undiscovered Voices is no kind of magic bullet, and it certainly can’t predict whether you can spin those 4,000 great words into a breakout novel. So while some of us surged ahead, converting that prize-winning entry into a publishing deal, others are still tinkering with it or perfecting a follow-up. Goodwill in the industry will only take you so far and the barriers to entry are getting higher all the time. But if you can perfect the combination – right book, right place, right time – the publishing world is your oyster.

Writers’ careers are measured not in weeks or months, but years. Continents drift and governments fall in the time it takes to write a book, get it through acquisitions and see it published. But there is an upside to that – you have all the time you need to build lasting friendships. Where I work in IT, the average amount of time anyone stays in a job is about two years. So people are always coming and going, which makes it hard to for me to stay in touch with anyone for an extended period. Yet, two years on from UV 2010, my fellow winners are still in touch and still writing. Hallelujah!

Anne Anderson, Dave Cousins, Jude Ensaff, Emily George, Jane McLoughlin, Claire O'Brien, Paula Rawsthorne, Lauren Sabel, Lisa Smith, Abbie Todd and Yona Wiseman – thank you all so much. I genuinely couldn’t do it without you.


Friday, 7 October 2011

Making a Scene

Wouldn't it be wonderful to be part of a scene? To be one of the movers and shakers making things happen and overturning the existing order? Can you imagine how it felt to be one of the Romantic Poets or the Bright Young Things of the 1920s? The feeling of endless possibilities and a collective creative purpose must have been so liberating. Mustn't it?

But I wonder if the people in those scenes even thought about what was happening. Perhaps they were simply meeting their friends to discuss their various creative projects. The idea of "a scene" often comes from outside the group, a label bestowed by the media in an attempt to understand cultural shift. The music industry is a particular culprit - I watched throughout the 90s as Melody Maker and NME came up with one manufactured trend after another, in an attempt to group seemingly dissimilar bands. What was Britpop, after all, except a collection of musicians who happened to be British? And as for post-punk? That could apply to any song recorded after 1979!

There's a wonderful film called Dogtown and Z-Boys that documents the birth of modern skateboarding culture. I'd recommend it even if you have no interest in skateboards, because it gives such a clear insight into what it's like to be part of a gang or a scene. The Z-Boys were a group of young men in California who surfed in the mornings but were looking for something to do later in the day. So they bought skateboards and during a drought, took over the drained, abandoned swimming pools in the area. Skating the smooth, curved sides of the pools allowed them to take to the air for the first time, inventing radical new tricks and moves. They weren't looking to change the world, they just wanted to hang out and have fun. But their style and attitude became iconic.

The Inklings were a very different group, but I'm sure they too had no idea - as they met week after week in an Oxford pub - that their members would produce some of the best-loved classics of English Literature. I find it slightly unreal to think that Tolkien and C.S. Lewis actually sat down together and discussed their fantasy worlds. Yet, how is that any different to me sitting down with my SCBWI critique group in an Oxford coffee shop? With three of us published or due to be published, aren't we, in fact, in a scene of our own making?

Let me widen that thought. I am very proud to be a part of "The SCBWI Scene." A dynamic group of young (at heart) children's writers who will profoundly affect what our children read for the next twenty years or more. A group who must navigate a massive technological shift in the world of storytelling and books. A group full of accomplished writers and illustrators who all once felt powerless, but now wield considerable influence. Make no mistake.

We are coming.